Although the average studio film cost $100.3 million to make and market in 2006, "Chalk," a sympathetic mockumentary about high school teachers by two teachers, demonstrates that competent, insightful films don't have to be expensive. Yet, while less than 0.5 percent of the typical
Hollywoodbudget, "Chalk" still cost somewhere around $5,000 per minute, suggesting that even with digital video, filmmaking remains a do-it-yourself undertaking only for the richest or most impassioned.
The fictional premise of "Chalk" is that a documentary crew follows four young
educators to find out why half of all teachers quit the profession within their first three years on the job. Texas
Hollywoodscreenwriters routinely regale us with uplifting tales, such as last winter's Hilary Swank drama "Freedom Writers," of teachers who rebel against what President Bush denounced as "the soft bigotry of low expectations" and inspire their impoverished students to prodigious accomplishments. In this gentle but unromaticized movie, however, the teachers view the students as similar to the constantly malfunctioning office photocopier: just another frustration of the job.
"Chalk's" two main characters are contrasting history teachers. Mr. Lowery, a shy former computer engineer, knows and cares about American history, but is treated by his students with disdain until he lowers himself to their level by using his nerd skills to win a spelling bee where students quiz teachers on current teen slang terms like "whoady" (which means "friend," in case you care, which you don't).
Meanwhile, Mr. Stroope (co-writer Peter Mass, who teaches geography in
) is a complete idiot. He makes his two smart kids stay after so he can privately warn them, "In class, try not to know as much as me." Yet, he is admired by most of his charges because he exhibits the masculine self-assurance embodied by Fred Willard's smugly clueless characters in all those docu-comedies directed by Christopher Guest like "A Mighty Wind." Austin, Texas
"Chalk" demonstrates something that parents can find surprising: how often even the rawest teachers have to wing it in the classroom with negligible guidance. Mr. Lowery is baffled that his students don't respond as logically as the computers he used to design, while Mr. Stroope, a master manipulator but not exactly a scholar, is required to make up his own lesson plans. When Meryl Streep goes to work, they hand her a screenplay, but teachers are frequently expected to write their own scripts.
Ironically, the stars of "Chalk" (mostly struggling stage actors in their first film) semi-improvised their lines based on an outline by Mass and director Mike Akel, and did a fine job. Still, there's a subtle weakness inherent in ensemble improvisation that has also been plaguing Guest's similar films, such as 2006's "For Your Consideration." Because the writers relinquish some control over the material to the actors, who have varied views, the jokes tend to be scattershot. Ad-libbing can seldom achieve the deep humor exemplified by the half dozen superbly crafted repetitions, each building on the last, of the "cleft stick" joke in Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, that epitome of the comic writer as painstaking architect.
Similarly, satires on complex topics are less suited for ensemble development than for a single artist's judgment. In contrast to the other workplace comedy filmed in the
Texascapital, the ferocious "Office Space" by the auteur Mike Judge ("Idiocracy"), "Chalk's" improv methodology blurs the point of the film, leaving ambiguous the answer to the original question of why all those teachers quit. Austin
Indeed, American public schooling still awaits its own well-deserved Catch-22. Consider the madness of the federal No Child Left Behind act that mandates "that all children should reach a proficient level of academic achievement by 2014," a goal that can be reached only by palpable fraud. In 2002, 67 percent of all students scored below proficiency on the federal government's NAEP exam. After three years of NCLB, the 2005 test found that 69 percent were too low.
Education's overwhelming reality is that, unlike in Garrison Keillor's
Lake Wobegonwhere all the children are above average, in half the students are below average in intelligence. Yet, because equality of outcome, not doing the best we can with what we have, is the goal, public education is dominated by fantasy and frenzied faddishness -- This new vogue must be the magic bullet that will turn us into Lake Wobegon H.S.! -- alternating manic-depressively -- Eh, what's the use? -- with the lassitude of despair. America
Rated PG-13 for some bad language.